Education Futures Podcast 22: Jon Tomlinson, OCU

by | Nov 24, 2020 | Education Futures Podcast, Featured

“When you are a “non-traditional” student, you’re an adult, you have family, a job, other responsibilities, online learning is almost a necessity. You don’t have the time to drive to campus and sit through a two- or three-hour lecture. That’s just not a possibility. So the advent of online learning is really one of the reasons why non-traditional education has blown up over the last 15 years.”

With more than 1,100 of their 2,000 students enrolled in their online program and another 500 high school students in their dual enrollment program, Ohio Christian University knows every student’s educational journey is different. In this podcast episode, Dr. Rob Reynolds talks with Jon Tomlinson, the Dean of Business and the Online School for Ohio Christian University. They talk about what makes a successful online program, the importance of instilling values in students, and Jon talks about his own family’s experience with dual enrollment.

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Full Transcript

Rob Reynolds:

Greetings everybody. Rob Reynolds here, I’m really fortunate today to be joined by Jon Tomlinson. Jon is the dean of business and online learning at Ohio Christian University. And we’re going to have a great conversation today talking about his journey, but also what’s happening at Ohio Christian and how they’re really trying to innovate with online learning, what they’re doing to work with students, and how they’re achieving their mission in many different ways. So thanks, Jon, and welcome to the podcast.

 

Jon Tomlinson:

Thank you, Rob. Glad to be here.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Oh, great. Well, Jon, I always like to start these conversations off by having my guests kind of talk about their own personal journey, because I think we all know that education is a personal thing. We talk about it in terms of institutions, but really, our motivations and missions get down to kind of what we experienced and how we learned and all the things that we’ve done. So why don’t you take a minute to share with us where you’ve been and how you got here?

 

Jon Tomlinson:

So the journey, okay. Undergraduate degree in biology from Wright State University, which is a university, a state university in Dayton, Ohio. From there, I joined healthcare. I worked at my local hospital where I live, in cardiac and pulmonary rehab. From there, I kind of topped out. I wanted to get into leadership, management. So I returned to Wright State University as an adult student with family and, you know, wife and family, and got my MBA. So by that time, in the healthcare institute, in the hospital, I was the manager of public relations and marketing. At that point, I kind of got the itch, kind of got the bug to try my hand at being a teacher, professor. So I reached out to local university, asked them if I could be an adjunct, they offered me an adjunct position primarily teaching healthcare administration courses, and then a full-time position opened at that university shortly thereafter. Decided to take that position because it was something that I really wanted to see if I liked and it kind of stuck.

So I was at that university for a period of 11 years. During that time, I finished my doctorate in organizational leadership. My doctorate in organizational leadership is from Regent University, which is a Christian school located in Virginia Beach, Virginia. So I really got involved in the online setting. Being an online student gives you a lot of insight in teaching in the online setting. And as I noted, it was a Christian university, so that really aligned with with my personal mission, vision, what I wanted to do with my career. I’ve been at Ohio Christian University for the last three years. As you said, I’m currently the dean in the school of business and the school of online learning. So I really, really enjoy the atmosphere at a Christian employer, at a Christian university, and really look forward to expanding the opportunities for our students with TEL Education.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Well, that’s terrific, Jon. One quick question. So you have that great kind of experience of having been kind of what we’d call the more traditional college student and then going back as an adult and with a family. So what were the big differences?

 

Jon Tomlinson:

The big differences were time commitments. Without my wife, I wouldn’t have been able to do either the MBA or my doctorate. She was there with me the whole step of the way. You know, as I was leaving on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons to go to my special place to write papers and do homework, you know, the chores of running a household and taking care of the kids were on her shoulders. So, you know, the support of, you know, support a family is very, very important, especially when you have children.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the things that we talk to our online students about is the sense of ownership that’s required, that you can’t rely on the class every day to structure you and have an instructor tell you what to do all day. They will do those things in online courses, but there is an onus on the student to be more involved and have greater ownership of that. This is probably a good segue into Ohio Christian, but from your own personal experience, was that something you really enjoyed, like, especially as you got onto your doctorate and with Regent, et cetera, and where you are more online and had to have that kind of ownership and that personal motivation? Was that something that worked well for you?

 

Jon Tomlinson:

Well, I think it kind of goes both ways. When you are a “nontraditional student,” you’re an adult, you have family, job, other responsibilities, online learning is almost a necessity because you don’t have the time to drive to campus and sit through a two, three hour lecture. That’s just not a possibility. So the advent of online learning is really one of the reasons why nontraditional student education has blown up over the last 10 to 15 years. That said, when I am teaching a class or, you know, I’m just discussing things with online students or people that are looking into being an online student, the ownership is very critical. Procrastination kills online students because they don’t see somebody like me two or three days a week saying, “Hey, you got homework due tomorrow.”

You know, you have to do it. And if you wait, if you procrastinate, you’re going to miss deadlines and missing deadlines costs your points and losing points costs you ultimately the grade that you want and that you think you deserve. So there’s a lot of personal responsibility when it comes to online, but that said, there’s also a lot of responsibility on the online facilitators and the online professors. Too often, and one of the benefits that I think I received from going to Regent in their online program is, I got to see how to do it the right way versus how to do it the wrong way too often in the online setting. Faculty are getting much better, and universities are getting much better, but faculty and universities early on would put the syllabus out there and the student guides out there and then just kind of take a step back and say, “Hey, there you go.”

And it was really nothing more than, you know, students submitting homework and us grading it, submitting homework, us grading it. And that’s not the way to properly do online. Online learning, really, when potential faculty members talked to me about online learning, most of them come in with the idea that I can make money, and it’s going to be easier because I don’t have to be in class. And it’s actually exactly the opposite.

In order to teach a class in the online setting, you’re going to spend a lot more time and a lot more effort if you want to do it properly. If you want to do it the right way, because you have to be more involved with your online students. Because if not, they feel like they’re on an island, and if they’re on an Island and you’re going to lose them. They’re going to procrastinate. They’re going to drop out of your class, and they’re not going to be able to achieve your goals. And, you know, I’m a dean, I have to do retention reports. And, you know, then the president is going to say, “Hey, why can’t you retain these students? So it’s very important because it goes all the way around. It’s more responsibility for everybody involved.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. You know, one of the things we see with students, and we have a lot of nontraditional and the other way, young students that are 15 and 16 years old that’ll come in and start taking college classes. And they’re different than adults in some ways. They haven’t had to have some of the responsibility, and hey, life can be tough, but you’ve got to get up and do it anyway. And so one of the challenges with that group is, when they get to a point where they’re uncertain, not progressing, didn’t get quite the result they want, they’re prone to kind of put their head in the sand and hope it all goes away, and just say, “Maybe Mom or Dad will bail me out.” You know? And so what you’re talking about is, you know, that’s so critical. You have to anticipate when and know when and where, how is that happening and be constantly reaching out to them proactively.

And we use algorithms and they’re manual algorithms that our student coaches work through. So if a student hasn’t progressed in a day after they finished an assignment, or they did their rough draft for a composition, but somehow they’ve had feedback, and we noticed that two days have passed, they haven’t worked on the final draft, where somebody is reaching out to them proactively at all times and saying, “Hey, you know, how are you doing? What’s going on?” Et cetera, because you’re exactly right. Without that type of instructional support, it’s back to correspondence courses.

 

Jon Tomlinson:

Yes.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Because that’s what a lot of people think it is. Just do some stuff, send it in, it’ll get graded, come back. And so really self disciplined students can do well, but it’s not equitable and it can’t be for everybody if that’s the only people who can play.

 

Jon Tomlinson:

That’s accurate.

 

Rob Reynolds:

We have to build a system that really supports them. So let’s talk a little bit about Ohio Christian University. So you’ve been there three years. You’re in a perfect position to answer the question, what makes Ohio Christian University unique? What makes it great? Why do you like being there? What’s special about it?

 

Jon Tomlinson:

In short, the mission and vision of the university, as I’m sure you know, but, you know, just to get into my answer, most universities started out as Christian institutions. And over the last several hundred years, many of them have kind of fallen away from that mindset to, in my opinion, the detriment of the university, sometimes the detriment of society. Ohio Christian University has a mission. You know, our goal is to prepare servant leaders. Okay? Prepare leaders to serve in both the church and society. So the university in 1948. I believe that date is accurate. Hopefully, when my boss watches this, it won’t be 49. 48. And it started out as Circleville Bible College. And, you know, obviously it was, you know, Circleville Bible college for many, many decades. You know, 10, 15 years ago, the university board of trustees and administration decided to expand that mission and vision ultimately resulting in changing the name to Ohio Christian University. And it allowed us to operate in other aspects, not only training pastors and that type of stuff, but the idea of Christian leadership and Christian management is beneficial to all facets of life.

So, you know, presently, obviously I’m the Dean of business, so we have programs in accounting, marketing, leadership, obviously management, information technology, but we also have other schools. So we still have a very, very strong showing in the religion and ministry classes training would be pastors. We have a very strong educational program, we’re training teachers. And we have degrees related to the helping professions. So we have psychology, substance abuse counseling, human services, degrees, and, you know, emergency and disaster management degrees, criminal justice. I know I’m going to miss a couple.

But, you know, the idea ultimately comes down to the way that Christ led and that’s through servant leadership. The idea that if you want to be first, you need to be last. The leader needs to be there on the front lines with his or her employees or followers or partners. And that’s what really drew me to working for a Christian university, because prior to coming here, I was in the secular setting. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with the secular setting, but it was a nice breath of fresh air when I came to Ohio Christian University.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. So one of the great things that I, and you said this at the beginning as you were kind of describing or telling me about Ohio Christian. Before we started, you were telling me about your enrollments. I view most universities as being kind of centripetal in the force. They’re pulling people to a center, you have this location, and people come to this location, and it’s fairly limited logistically. One of the things about I like about your model is you have more of a centrifugal force. You’re reaching out and you do serve. You have a traditional cadre of students that come to campus, but you serve adult learners, you have your Trailblazer Academy, et cetera. And so I’m assuming that’s part of the university’s mission is to be outward focused and to reach these communities.

 

Jon Tomlinson:

Absolutely. Just to put some numbers to it, we have probably 2000 active students, give or take. 11 to 1200 of those are our nontraditional adult students, average age, 33 to 35 years old. They were me, have a family, have a career. You know, they take the online classes. We have about 400 students on campus, and then the remainder, about 500 or so, we call it trailblazer, which is the college credit plus or dual credit. You know, so the vast majority of our students are actually not even on campus. They are out in the workforce already. So the ability for us to impact other institutions is really prevalent with our online training. All of our online classes have weekly devotionals that pull in biblical information and relate it to the classes.

We also build our classes with the idea that there is one truth, and that is God’s truth. And if you discount that, then you’re not really getting the full educational experience, especially from a Christian university. And I guess in today’s society, I believe and we believe, that the more information that we can put out there related to Christianity or spirituality, whatever term you’re comfortable using, is better for society. And, you know, a lot of secular institutions don’t really want to talk about religion or Christianity, which is fine. There’s actually a whole area of research out there called workplace spirituality. And it basically says, you don’t have to profess your religion, but you can act a certain way. You can be the good Samaritan. You don’t have to tell somebody you’re the good Samaritan, but you can be the good Samaritan and people will see that you’re a good person simply based on the way that you act, not necessarily the way that you, you know, that you don’t have to profess it speaking wise. Because sometimes, honestly, sometimes that’s frowned upon in our society. Unfortunately, but it is.

 

Rob Reynolds:

No, values are incredibly important, and we see that all the time in the newspaper about why they’re important in online and how we as a society and as civilizations need to improve in that. So that’s exciting. So you have, you know, you said about 500 students that are in the college credit plus program through Trailblazer Academy. What have you at, you personally, but Ohio Christian, what have you learned in serving those students?

 

Jon Tomlinson:

Oh, I actually have a very personal example with that. My son went through college credit plus, and in this state of Ohio, college credit plus is, in my opinion, one of the best things available for high school students in the state now. And I not familiar with how all the states do it, but in the state of Ohio, a high school student can take a college credit plus, and that’s primarily where TEL comes in, but college credit plus, and they get dual credit for it. They get credit for their high school equivalent class, but then they can also start to work towards their actual college degree. My son finished 60 credits and achieved an associate’s degree before he actually left my house and went to college.

 

Rob Reynolds:

That’s amazing. That’s beautiful.

 

Jon Tomlinson:

The amount of money, I mean, if you think of it from a financial perspective, the amount of money that college credit plus saved me was great. Now, from a perspective of the university, obviously we want to provide services to all students regardless of age. You know, we have a lot of students in the, you know, in the upper level classes, but we use college credit plus too, and we call it the Trailblazer program. And we use it as, part of it’s a recruitment tool, introduce the student to Ohio Christian University, introduce the student to college life, college classes, but it’s also beneficial for the student because, I’ll just talk from personal experience. My son got to the point where he was kind of bored with the high school classes. They weren’t really challenging him to the point where he needed to be challenged, which is when he actually approached me wanting to take college level classes and it exploded there. He didn’t go to high school his senior year.

He took all a full load of college credit classes and, you know, organizations like TEL Education and our ability to give students the opportunity to take classes in an online setting, you know, that’s really the cream, that’s the topping, that’s the benefit of living in today’s society. None of this stuff would have been possible 15 to 20 years ago.

 

Rob Reynolds:

No.

 

Jon Tomlinson:

I wish this stuff was possible when I was in high school, because I would have owed the government a lot less money in student loans if I could have taken classes like this.

 

Rob Reynolds:

No, absolutely. In many ways, I see it as one of the solutions to what people are concerned about, the cost of college. Well, this is a way to really reduce that burden, and also it gives kids, at a very low cost and low risk in a low risk environment, the opportunity to make some decisions and to avoid going to college and spending three years, but they don’t know what they want to major in or anything like that. If you’ve had 30 hours at least before you show up, you have a pretty good idea of whether you want to go off to technical school now, whether you want to go into a specific area, what you’re interested in, et cetera, and to not waste money once you get there either.

 

Jon Tomlinson:

That’s exactly what my son did. So my son, when he started his dual enrollment program, he came to me, and I’m, you know, the dean of a university. He’s like, “I don’t know what I want to do.” I said, “Well, you know, you kind of have two choices in an associate’s degree. You kind of go the science track or the business track.” You know, it’s kind of one of those two. So I recommended, as a business person, I said, “Take an intro to management class and an intro to economics class. And if you like them, then you’re a business person. If you don’t like them, then the next step is to go someplace.” And he didn’t like them, which is, you know, confounds me because that’s what I do. But so he went and got an associate of science and is in the university in forensic science as his major.

So, you know, but the other benefit, in my opinion, with our partnership, Ohio Christian’s partnership with TEL Education is, because we are a smaller school, we don’t always have all of the resources necessary to provide each and every degree and each and every class that students want to take and want to try out. So this is a new partnership for us, as you know, but for the individuals watching this, this is a new partnership for us. I’m the point person, and we just now started loading and registering students for our spring 2021 program, which starts in January. And our students are gravitating towards the online science classes. Those are the ones that, of the individuals that are currently registered and want to take TEL classes, they’re gravitating towards the online science. And that’s because, in an online program, teaching science is pretty difficult. You know, teaching those quantitative or those hard science courses, it takes special skill. And, you know, from what I can see so far, those are going to be the ones that are going to be for us, for my student population, the ones that are the most popular.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Oh, that’s great. And, you know, we’re very proud of our partnership, in great part because Ohio Christian represents kind of our view of the world and our view of how we serve. And reaching people, helping them save money, making education equitable, getting it to everybody, making sure that we continue to improve the world by giving people wisdom and better understanding. Jon, I want to finish this, and I appreciate all your great ideas today, with this question. Because you’ve done a great job of talking about Ohio Christian, but to give you another kind of angle on that, I know that we’ve talked about specifically some of the education things you’re doing, but I know Ohio Christian exists in a community and works with community partners and does other things. So what are some of the other ways that Ohio Christian’s active in Ohio or any place else as a university?

 

Jon Tomlinson:

Actually, probably the best example is where I’m sitting right now. I am sitting in the building that we call OCUBIC, O-C-U-B-I-C. It’s our Ohio Christian University Business Innovation Center. It was a public-private partnership to build this building, and it’s basically our outreach building. Dr. Monty Lobb is the director of OCUBIC, and his job is to look for partnerships, look for opportunities to do one of two things, or more than one of two things, but to reach out with the resources that Ohio Christian University has into the community around, you know, we’re in Circleville, which is a small town just outside of Columbus. So to reach out with our resources and our capabilities and offer that knowledge and information to, you know, area high schools, area businesses and say, “Hey, we can be seen as a resource for you,” but also to kind of serve as the point for, you know, those institutions that are coming in.

I just worked on a partnership agreement with a local high school that is, they are going to start the Google IT support professional certificates and approached us. And we’re working out a deal where, if one of their high school students completes the Google certificate program, they will be able to transfer that in for college credits and start them on a process to achieve an associates or a bachelor’s degree in information technology. So those are the types of things that, you know, that Ohio Christian University does. And, you know, certainly we’re not the only one, but, you know, for our area, we’re a major employer and a major resource, and it’s important for us not to look internally, but to, you know, look to expand. You know, just to, I guess, plug one more thing about the Ohio Christian University, Jesus sent out the disciples in groups of two plus two. It’s our job to continue to do that process with the resources that we have.

 

Rob Reynolds:

That’s fantastic. And Jon, this has just been a wonderful conversation. I appreciate your enthusiasm for the university, but also for serving people and supporting your mission. It’s always great to talk to people in higher ed. Administrators and faculty have a very clear sense of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and how they’re serving students of all ages and all kinds. So I appreciate the work you’re doing and that Ohio Christian is doing as well, and look forward to our partnership and more importantly, to the work that you’re doing to really make a difference in the world. And we appreciate it. I thank everybody who’s listening to this podcast. Again, this is Jon Tomlinson, the dean of the school of business and school of online learning at Ohio Christian University.

 

Jon Tomlinson:

Thank you very much for the opportunity, Rob. Glad to work with you.

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